Atomic clocks are the most accurate chronometers we have. They are millions of times more accurate than digital clocks and can keep time for hundreds of millions of years without losing as much as a second. Their use has revolutionised the way we live and work and they have enabled technologies such as satellite navigation systems and global online commerce.
But how do they work? Strangely enough, atomic clocks work in the same way as ordinary mechanical clocks. But rather than have a coiled spring and mass or pendulum they use the oscillations of atoms. Atomic clocks are not radioactive as they do not rely on atomic decay instead they rely on the tiny vibrations at certain energy levels (oscillations) between the nucleus of an atom and the surrounding electrons.
When the atom receives microwave energy at exactly the right frequency, it changes energy state, this state is constant an unchanging and the oscillations can be measured just like the ticks of a mechanical clock. However, while mechanical clocks tick every second, atomic clocks ‘tick’ several billion times a second. In the case of caesium atoms, most commonly used in atomic clocks, they tick 9,192,631,770 per second – which is now the official definition of a second.
Atomic clocks now govern the entire global community as a universal timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) based on atomic clock time has been developed to ensure synchronization. UTC atomic clock signals can be received by network time servers, often referred to as NTP Servers, that can synchronize computer networks to within a few milliseconds of UTC.